Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Can't We All Just...

It is hot today, as it ought to be for mid-July. But it's that first wave of heat where everyone forgets it was ever hot in the world and we all walk around with fixed grimaces and schlumpy bodies and everyone raises their eyebrows in greeting in a silent, mass proclamation of, "Damn...it got hot."

And with that heat always seems to come that peculiar sense of irritation...the righteous indignation of stepping out of a shower only to find yourself sweaty and mussed again fifteen minutes later. The way no air conditioning can ever hope to compete. The children who suddenly find their twelve-week paradise of summer vacation to be tedious, endless, dragging on because it's too hot to play outside, and lounging in the climate controlled depths of a basement is ultimately every bit as boring as school.

I'm in a bit of this summer funk today, as my sweaty work clothes hang weirdly on my frame, the little wispy hairs escaping my ponytail curl up at the nape of my neck...things that might be romantic in the light of autumnal nostalgia, but right now are just plain annoying. My cats are even whiny...pacing between front door and patio door, meowing pitieously until I open a door for them to leave, and then refusing to budge when the first heat waves off the baking concrete tingle their whiskers. Even the Internet is sluggish today.

So I'm blaming the heat because I was reading several blog posts and forums this morning with my breakfast and now it's lunchtime and I'm still having a problem wrapping my head around the issue:

As a warmup to the Blogher conference in Chicago on July 27 and 28, Laurie Toby Edison, who writes at Body Impolitic announced a panel for BlogHer called "Our Bodies, Our Blogs".

Laurie describes on her site as such:

I’m planning to talk about body image in the broader sense. Obviously I’ll be talking about the issues of fat, beauty, power and health at any size - but body image (as folks who read us know) includes a lot more. When the beauty standard is young, blond, white and thin, it leaves almost all of us out. It leaves most women and men feeling “never attractive enough”, causes endless discrimination, and makes billion$ for the beauty and diet industries. There is so much we can talk about - fat/size, aging, ability/disability, color, “right” facial features, class, children.

Okay, cool. Had I gotten the cash together to book the transportation and a non-skeevy hotel, I would be there with pen and legal pad firmly in hand. I think it's an important subject, I think it's a great idea to bring women together under that particular discussion umbrella, but I'm really having a hard time justifying the motivation and some of the tangential issues with the panel and the movement at large (pun totally intended).

The panel was started by Laurie partially because it's an important and prevalent issue for most women, but also as a response to what she deemed "fat-offensive" items in the 2006 Blogher swag bags (fat free cookies, health water, etc.) And that's fine...I can understand how someone who devotes herself to disspelling the need for such projects would be bothered by seeing them in a giftbag from an organization who also claims to support her causes as well. But I also think it's important to remember that if an organzation like Blogher is going to build and maintain a presence in the online community, they're going to have to accept sponsorships wherever they can get them for awhile, and so maybe it'd be okay to pick your battles from time to time.

And now, for the other more important issue:

As usual, I was a little late in getting my thoughts together on this, so by the time I sat down to write this post, Jen had already read the same forum posts and the same blog entries and had also summed up her thoughts on it very nicely. I won't waste time pointing you to who said what since she already did it very succinctly http://yawwblog.blogspot.com/2007/07/do-i-really-hate-myself.html.

So basically the argument Jen is making boils down to this question: If you're currently attempting to lose weight, and if you blog about such issues, should be you be welcomed at a panel about self-acceptance and body image?

And of course the authors of the blogher posts and the prospective panelists all responded and said "Yes! BUT..." And then went on to explain that eating problems and the subsequent weight loss attempts to correct the eating problems all stem from self-hate, and so therefore aren't really aligned with the principles of the self-acceptance movement.

And this is where my mind started going a little haywire, trying to wrap itself around these arguments. And I need to preface everything I'm going to write from this point on with the following disclaimer:

I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M ABOUT TO TALK ABOUT. I am ignorant of body politics. I have never, ever studied feminism or feminist movements. I have very little knowledge of any acceptance movement at all. The following paragraphs are only based on my impressions of the above discussion on Jen's blog as well as my own impressions of the very little corner of the body-image acceptance movement I've read about or seen. Please, if somethign I write about here can be improved by a book or an article or another blog that you think I should read, leave it in the comments. If you think I'm an irresponsible female for never participating in gender studies in college, please let me know who I should start reading so I can become more informed. I would really appreciate that, thanks.

Okay, so.

The body image panel discussion, and Laurie's blog bothers me on two different levels: First, whether or not Wendy McClure should speak at the BlogHer panel because her participation in Weight Watchers was counterintuitive to the body image movement?

What?! This was Brain Explosion #1 for me today.

And I understand (at least I think) that the basic premise is that if you love your body, why would you spend time and money and effort to change it to meet societal expectations of beauty? That any sort of diet and exercise effort should be done for the sole purpose of improving physical well-being and that's it. In essence, if you're trying diet back into your Skinny Jeans, you're too self-loathing to join the ranks of the Body Image Warriors.

I sort of get it...yes. It's the same argument we've been hearing ever since Twiggy bumped out her more Rubinesque counterparts on the cover of Vogue: media puts too much pressure on women to look a certain way and society only values young, thin, white women, etc. etc. etc. so why should we concede that this is how it's going to be?

And you know that battle cry has reached fever pitch when a lingerie model is now telling us to embrace her fat self or shut up:

And so our new Patron Saint Tyra is telling us all to say "So What?" on her show, and she even convinced her audience of fawning women to don red bodysuits with individual body weights proudly emblazoned on each girl's chest (notice in the clips on her show that no one over 160 lbs. made it actually onscreen) and so it seems that the body acceptance movement is gaining momentum in the very arena that caused the problems in the first place. So what bothers me is that the rest of us, unassumingly counting points or writing about cravings on our online journals or slogging away on a treadmill each morning are now no longer part of that community. We're the enemy, we're the backslide to the body image movement because we hate ourselves enough to change how we look.

I absolutely do not understand why there must be a size acceptance camp and a weight loss camp and ne'er the twain shall meet. I think it's stupid, actually, because anyone who approaches this with an ounce of common sense will recognize that the healing process of losing weight, of accomplishing more things with your body than you thought possible at first, of being able to slip on clothes without worrying about what you look like...of those vast improvements in mental health far outweigh and often support the physical benefits of weight loss and a healthy lifestyle. Every single person whose life has been changed through weight loss has talked about the immense sense of freedom they attain while they're going through the motions of working off the fat. They talk about the broken relationshps they've been able to heal, of the new self-confidence, the sense of efficacy...and yes, they gleefully recount the times they've been checked out by someone at the supermarket, or the day that they managed to walk into a non-Fatstore and try on a pair of jeans without tears of shame. And I know the Size Acceptance movement says it should never be about the last part, but it is. It always is, and it always will be. Validation for one's successes, at least in some small measure, will always be an innate human need, and there's nothing that redefining how we're supposed to think about ourselves can do to combat that.

I also understand that another problem with weight loss blogging as a means of size advocacy is that it's a fairly self-centered activity (as Jen admitted in her post). When I write what I ate, what I was thinking when I ate, how I'm feeling, etc., I'm not doing it to inspire anyone at the moment. (Although when people say they draw inspiration from my words, it's a phenomenally gratifying feeling). I'm writing here because I don't have a support network in my own real life, and this is the best way I know to reach the widest variety of people going through a similar process. In my writing, I am not changing minds or effecting societal progress...I know this. But as I considered that, I also realized the other question I have for the size acceptance proponents:

If size acceptance is built upon the idea that you should be comfortable in your own skin, regardless of your weight or appearance, then why be political about it?

Laurie Toby Edison has posted a gallery of her photographs of female nudes entitled Women en Large. From an artistic standpoing, they are brave, bold photographs. They're unforgiving to the women's respective bodies, but they're also respectful, open, and even whimsical in some. But as I looked through each of these...thought about the strength it would take for women like that to strip down and pose and be open to thousands of people viewing their voluptuousness, their rolls of creamy skin, their stretch marks...the primary response in my head was "what is she trying to SAY with all this?"

Because if the purpose of the size acceptance movement is to tell women and men not to worry about what other people think of you, then why publish these photos at all? Or, is the purpose to desensitize the world to the stigma a fat body carries with it wherever it goes? In that case, where does the self acceptance come into play? Why didn't she just give the photos to the women who posed for them so they could enjoy their bodies?

And I wonder about this a lot...whether the size acceptance movement is going awry in politicizing their agenda. I thought about this as I caught a few minutes of the reality show America's Got Talent and watched a performance by the plus-sized girl group The Glamazons. I argue that The Glamazons have made it as far as they did not because of extraordinary talent (their ability to harmonize and exude stage presence is questionable in comparison to the other acts on the show), but because they were, in fact, all fat. The judge's comments were primarily geared towards congratulating the girls on their bravery for appearing in ass-baring lingerie and jiggling and dancing with abandon like the supersized Christina Aguileras they were obviously trying to imitate. So what is this communicating, that these women are being honored specifically for being overweight? It seems to me that size acceptance, in what I understand to be its original form, is completely lost when it's being used as the label for getting other people to accept individuals of size, rather than offering support for anyone who has a problem with their body to improve it and ultimately make peace with it in the process.

I suppose what I'm trying to say, in a very inefficient manner, is that I like the spirit of the size acceptance activists. I like what they stand for, but I do not like their politics. I'm angry that Wendy McClure was made to feel even a little unwelcome because she had the audacity to look for a tool that would help her feel better about herself. I'm angry that talented writers like Jen are told there must be something psychologically wrong for them to want to reduce their body shape and look better. I'm irritated that just because I want to feel that profound sense of relief when I walk into a store knowing that there WILL be something there to fit me, that I've been branded as superficial, body-conscious, shallow for wanting to look a certain way. If that's the case, then label me as such, but I'm fairly certain that in the last seven months of learning how to eat correctly, to vanquish bad habits, to move past all the hang-ups I have about how I am and what I can do, I've done more for my own self-acceptance through dieting than I ever would by simply throwing my hands up in the air and saying "so what?"

And now the cats and I must retire to the patio with a big glass of water and a fan. Because damn...it's hot.


jen said...

I felt the same way with my post, that I didn't know how to say what I wanted to say effectively, because I didn't want to imply that I was one of those "Kelly Clarkson is fat" people. I want people to be happy and healthy and accept themselves at whatever size they are, but I am also okay with the idea that people may want to change their weight (hopefully in a sensible, non-obsessive way) just like they might want to change their hair color. If I go from brown hair to red, that doesn't necessarily mean that I think brunettes are ugly, right? I think weight is just so high stakes -- all the hysterical debate about the "OBESITY CRISIS!!!" as if people gaining weight is a new thing can make you feel like Public Enemy #1 if you have some extra poundage. I look back at photos of my family from the early part of the century and a lot of them were fat then, too, even before McDonald's and all that. My "fat" maternal grandparents both lived happily and healthfully into their late 80s.

Still, I think that there is a point -- and it's different for every person -- where extra weight is a drain on their energy and health. I am not going to be the one to decide where that is for anyone but me.

Personally, I also think it's OK to lose more than is necessary just for health reasons, as long as you don't make yourself sick or obsessed in the process.

Sorry for the long-winded rant on this, but I think that it is an important issue, after all, and not as shallow as it seemed at first glance. :)

Jeni said...

I agree completely and don't think these two perspectives should be mutually exclusive. I want to love my body, and I want to do something to make it better too (and that's better according to me, no one else). It's strange, because fat, however you look at it, is such a personal issue. Yet it's also there for the whole wide world to see, so it's a public issue too. It's a really hard discussion to have, and I'm just glad there are people out there talking about it.

Peggy Elam, Ph.D. said...

Your post came up in my Google alert on size acceptance, and I read it out of curiosity. If you really are interested in books that might answer some questions (and challenge some assumptions), I recommend "Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss and the Myths and Realities of Dieting" by Gina Kolata (science reporter for the New York Times), "Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health" by Glenn Gaesser, Ph.D. (exercise physiologist/health promotion professor at Univ. of Virginia, if I remember correctly) and "Fat Politics" by J. Eric Oliver, Ph.D. (political scientist professor in at a Michigan university, I think).

Loey said...

Beautifully summed up. I’m a lurker on many blogs, both size acceptance and weight loss, but am usually very hesitant to comment on any, and have never shared my own blog, for many of the reasons that you touch upon. I’ve attained a healthy weight after several years of dieting, and am trying to drop the last few pounds. The fact that I don’t “need” to lose any more sets me as an outsider on most weight loss blogs, and the fact that I want to alter my body at all sets me outside of the size acceptance blogs.

But it is on these forums that I feel I can best relate to people; I am from a family of women that are almost all over-weight to varying degrees, who accept themselves to varying degrees, and so the size acceptance discussions are of interest and applicable to my life. And I still identify strongly with those who struggle with their weight. That I don’t feel that I can be an active member of either community has been a source of frustration.

And you are an inspiration, Erin. I check your blog almost daily; I cheer for your successes and want to give you a hug when you stumble.

Lotta said...

Great post, I was in that session and wrote about it too. It was irritating how the room divided into camps.

Robin said...

Great post. I think perhaps the point of the 'Women En Large' photo gallery is simply to show some variety in the female form. We're exposed to literally hundreds of images every day of thin, lithe, 'perfect' female bodies, which is part of the reason weight is so politicized in the first place and why most of us feel like crap about ourselves. We internalize that standard as the norm just through sheer bombardment. It's good to see a few photos out there that show larger women - like, hey, this can be OK too; even beautiful. Whether it contributes to society's general objectification of the female form is another question. (Don't you sometimes just want to go live in a cave somewhere and get away from all this crap?)

Michelle said...

"I like the spirit of the size acceptance activists. I like what they stand for, but I do not like their politics."

Couldn't agree more. I think it's human nature, especially when in a group, to feel the need to choose one or the other when two options are presented. How about a little of both. Great post.